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The Resurrection: Matthew 28:1-15

Jesus Has Risen

1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The resurrection of Jesus is, of course, reported in all four gospels. It’s the central doctrine of our faith, and without it, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Corinthians 15:14) See my posts on Jesus’ resurrection in Mark here, and Luke here. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” whom I believe must have been Mary the mother of Jesus, went to the tomb, not just to see the tomb, as Matthew implies, but to complete the ritual embalming that was supposed to be performed by family members, as both Mark and Luke clearly state (Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1). The way the language of verses 2-4 are translated in the NIV make it seem like the earthquake happened when the women arrived, but that is not in the original language. As Mark and Luke say, the stone had already been rolled away when the women arrived at the tomb (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2).

It looks to me like the account of what the angel had done, and what happened to the guards is a sort of “flashback.” When the women came on the scene, the tomb was open and the guards were either unconscious or gone. I can’t help but wonder if one or more of the guards were converted as a result of this experience. If so, they are very likely the source of this account. We know now that the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire was greatly helped by believers in the Roman army. At least four Roman soldiers witnessed the resurrection of Christ. How could they help but be changed by that experience?

The description of the angel’s appearance (we know from Luke 24:4 that there were actually two angels, though Matthew and Mark only mention one) is very similar to the description of Jesus at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:29). The implication is not of a light shining on them, but a brilliant light shining out from within them. This is an example of what I call the light of Jesus (blog).

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

As always seems to happen when an angel appears to someone in the Bible, the first thing they say is, “Don’t be afraid.” But I don’t think the women were just afraid of the angels, though the appearance of angels is enough to strike fear into anyone. Mark seems to say that they were alarmed that the body of Jesus was gone (Mark 16:4-6). John says that Mary Magdalene thought Jesus’ body had been stolen (John 20:2, 13). Imagine the shock of visiting the grave of a loved one, and finding the grave dug up, the casket open, and the body missing! But the angel reminded them of what Jesus had promised, and that he had risen, just as he said. Our greatest sorrow can be turned to joy if we will only remember the things Jesus said, and believe that he will do what he said he’d do.

The angel showed them the place where Jesus’ body was laid. They saw the grave clothes in which Jesus had been wrapped. John gives a detailed description of them. From the appearance of the grave clothes, it was obvious that the body had not been stolen. If it had been, the thieves would not have unwrapped the body first, nor would they have taken the trouble to fold up the cloth “by itself, separate from the linen,” as John describes (John 20:6-7). Since John made a point of describing the grave clothes, and said that he saw and believed at that point (John 20:8), I have had the belief for decades that Jesus left them that way for a specific reason. I believe that when Jesus rose, he folded his grave clothes the way he had always folded his clothes during his life. I believe he left them that way for John’s benefit, because John was his best friend. John would see the grave clothes folded the way only Jesus would have done it, and would know Jesus was alive, because he had traveled and lived with Jesus for three years. John had seen Jesus fold his clothes that way many times.

But what had not occurred to me until now is that Jesus must also have done this for his mother’s benefit. It would have been Mary who taught Jesus to fold his bed clothes neatly every morning when he got up. Mary was one of the first to see the place where Jesus was laid. She saw the grave clothes folded the way she had taught her son to do. She must have known he was alive the moment she saw that. Of course, I know this is all just speculation. But you can’t prove me wrong! Mary also had personal experience with angels. She knew that what they said was always true. Her son was risen.

8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. Then Jesus said to them, 9“Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10“Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

When Jesus appeared to the women, they immediately fell at his feet and worshiped him. That is the only appropriate response to the risen Lord. One might think his mother would run up and throw her arms around him, but Mary knew that this wasn’t just the boy she had raised. This was God himself, the only one who is worthy of our worship. And Jesus accepted their worship, which proves that he is God. Jesus told them the same thing the angel did, to go and tell his disciples that he is risen, which they did (Luke 24:9-10). They were the first to tell the Gospel, the good news that Jesus is risen from the grave.

We know from Luke 24:36 that Jesus appeared to his disciples that same day in Jerusalem. He didn’t wait until they went back to Galilee. But Matthew is simply condensing the story, as he did elsewhere. But the essential facts are the same in all four gospels. Jesus is no longer in the grave. He is risen!

The Guards’ Report

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Matthew is the only gospel writer who tells us of this deception. It shows just how far human beings are willing to go to protect themselves and their interests. Some of the guards, probably the commanders of the guard at the tomb, went to the chief priests and told them what had happened. Why did they go to the chief priests, and not to Pilate? When the Pharisees went to Pilate to ask that the tomb be sealed, in the NIV, Pilate’s answer is given, “Take a guard, go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” But some translations of 27:65, like the New King James, translate the first part of Pilate’s answer as you have a guard. Some scholars believe that refers to the Roman guard that was assigned to the Temple, or perhaps extra guards were placed under the chief priests’ authority during the Passover. The guards at the tomb may been part of those under the chief priests’ authority at that time, and that was why they reported to the chief priests after the resurrection.

Imagine the fear that struck the chief priests when they heard the news that angels had rolled the stone away, and that the body of Jesus was missing. In verse 4 of this chapter, Matthew says that when the angel rolled the stone away, the soldiers at the tomb “were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.” The soldiers may not have actually seen the risen Jesus. They may have been unconscious, and did not know what happened to him. But they knew that all of their precautions were for naught, and that they had been overpowered by some kind of divine force. To the chief priests, this could have only one meaning: God had raised Jesus from the dead, just as Jesus had predicted. God would not have sent angels to roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb just so Jesus’ disciples could steal his body. God does not work that way, and the chief priests knew it. They knew they had to consult with the elders, which probably means the whole Sanhedrin was called into session to decide what to do.

The chief priests, together with the elders, the ruling council, decided on a course of action. I think it’s entirely possible that the fate of Jerusalem was decided once and for all at that meeting. This was the same group that had convicted Jesus of blasphemy on Friday morning. But we know that some among them, namely Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, had not consented to the group’s decision (Luke 23:50-51). They had voted “innocent” when the council voted to convict Jesus. I imagine that, when this discussion took place after the guards’ report, there were a few who recommended that if Jesus really was raised from the dead, the leadership should acknowledge him as the Messiah. The tearing of the curtain in the Most Holy Place probably came up in the discussion. God was clearly at work. But as in the trial of Jesus, they were in the minority. I can’t help but think that if the religious leadership of Judea had embraced the truth in that moment instead of bribing the soldiers to spread a lie, Jerusalem might have been saved. But they decided to protect their own status and position rather than do what was right, and Jerusalem’s fate was sealed.

Matthew says the guards were paid a large sum of money. In the Roman army, the penalty for falling asleep while on guard was death, so it must have been a really large amount of money to persuade the soldiers to spread the rumor that they had been bested by some relatively unarmed Jews, that they fell asleep while on guard, and slept so soundly that a group of men breaking the Roman seal and rolling the stone away didn’t even wake them! Now that I think of it, that’s probably another reason the soldiers went to the chief priests instead of Pilate. If Pilate heard about it, they would be much more likely to suffer punishment for allowing this to happen. That’s why the chief priests promised to smooth things over with Pilate if he heard about it. Pilate was corrupt, and would gladly have accepted a bribe himself. It’s pretty obvious from the gospels that Pilate really wanted nothing to do with this matter to start with, and only participated in the trial of Jesus because he was pressed to by the chief priests and elders. He would soon be going back to Caesarea, and probably wouldn’t want to be bothered with this matter anyway.

Matthew says that the rumor that Jesus’ body had been stolen by his disciples survived among the Jews to the time he wrote his gospel, some 30 years after the resurrection. The chief priests and elders succeeded in maintaining their power for another 37 years or so, until Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70 A.D. The thing that strikes me most from this account is the fact that the religious leaders of Israel knew that Jesus was risen. They heard about it before most did, and from the most credible witnesses. What did they choose to do with this information? Instead of admitting their error, repenting and accepting that Jesus really was God’s Messiah, they chose to pay bribes and spread a lie. The only reason they would do this was to protect their own position. If the Messiah was indeed risen from the dead, if the curtain in the Most Holy Place was really torn in two, then the whole system that had made them rich and powerful was coming to an end. Rather than acknowledge that and accept whatever God had for them, they decided that what they wanted was more important than what God wanted. Before we condemn them for that decision, we need to ask ourselves how many times we have done the same.

But many thousands did believe Jesus was risen, and at least 500 actually saw the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:6). Aside from all the other evidence that we have that Jesus is risen, one of the most compelling is the testimony of the apostles. Most of them were imprisoned, tortured, and martyred for preaching the resurrection of Jesus. Yet none of them recanted. People will not die for that which they know is a lie. The testimony of the apostles proves that Jesus is risen.

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